- The Battle of the Labyrinth
“Twenty riddles, actually!” the Sphinx said gleefully.
“What? But back in the old days—”
“Oh, we’ve raised our standards! To pass, you must show proficiency in all twenty. Isn’t that great?”
Applause switched on and off like somebody turning a faucet.
Annabeth glanced at me nervously. I gave her an encouraging nod.
“Okay,” she told the Sphinx. “I’m ready.”
A drumroll sounded from above. The Sphinx’s eyes glittered with excitement. “What…is the capital of Bulgaria?”
Annabeth frowned. For a terrible moment, I thought she was stumped.
“Sofia,” she said, “but—”
“Correct!” More canned applause. The Sphinx smiled so widely her fangs showed. “Please be sure to mark your answer clearly on your test sheet with a number 2 pencil.”
“What?” Annabeth looked mystified. Then a test booklet appeared on the podium in front of her, along with a sharpened pencil.
“Make sure you bubble each answer clearly and stay inside the circle,” the Sphinx said. “If you have to erase, erase completely or the machine will not be able to read your answers.”
“What machine?” Annabeth asked.
The Sphinx pointed with her paw. Over by the spotlight was a bronze box with a bunch of gears and levers and a big Greek letter Ȇta on the side, the mark of Hephaestus.
“Now,” said the Sphinx, “next question—”
“Wait a second,” Annabeth protested. “What about ‘What walks on four legs in the morning’?”
“I beg your pardon?” the Sphinx said, clearly annoyed now.
“The riddle about the man. He walks on four legs in the morning, like a baby, two legs in the afternoon, like an adult, and three legs in the evening, as an old man with a cane. That’s the riddle you used to ask.”
“Exactly why we changed the test!” the Sphinx exclaimed. “You already knew the answer. Now second question, what is the square root of sixteen?”
“Four,” Annabeth said, “but—”
“Correct! Which U.S. president signed the Emancipation Proclamation?”
“Abraham Lincoln, but—”
“Correct! Riddle number four. How much—”
“Hold up!” Annabeth shouted.
I wanted to tell her to stop complaining. She was doing great! She should just answer the questions so we could leave.
“These aren’t riddles,” Annabeth said.
“What do you mean?” the sphinx snapped. “Of course they are. This test material is specially designed—”
“It’s just a bunch of dumb, random facts,” Annabeth insisted. “Riddles are supposed to make you think.”
“Think?” The Sphinx frowned. “How am I supposed to test whether you can think? That’s ridiculous! Now, how much force is required—”
“Stop!” Annabeth insisted. “This is a stupid test.”
“Um, Annabeth,” Grover cut in nervously. “Maybe you should just, you know, finish first and complain later?”
“I’m a child of Athena,” she insisted. “And this is an insult to my intelligence. I won’t answer these questions.”
Part of me wsa impressed with her for standing up like that. But part of me thought her pride was going to get us all killed.
The spotlights glared. The Sphinx’s eyes glittered pure black.
“Why then, my dear,” the monster said calmly. “If you won’t pass, you fail. And since we can’t allow any children to be held back, you’ll be EATEN!”
The Sphinx bared her claws, which gleamed like stainless steel. She pounced at the podium.
“No!” Tyson charged. He hates it when people threaten Annabeth, but I couldn’t believe he was being so brave, especially since he’d had such a bad experience with a Sphinx before.
He tackled the Sphinx in midair and they crashed sideways into a pile of bones. This gave Annabeth just enough time to gather her wits and draw her knife. Tyson got up, his shirt clawed to shreds. The Sphinx growled, looking for an opening.
I drew Riptide and stepped in front of Annabeth.
“Turn invisible,” I told her.
“I can fight!”
“No!” I yelled. “The Sphinx is after you! Let us get it.”
As if to prove my point, the Sphinx knocked Tyson aside and tried to charge past me. Grover poked her in the eye with somebody’s leg bone. She screeched in pain. Annabeth put on her cap and vanished. The Sphinx pounced right were she’d been standing, but came up with empty paws.
“No fair!” the Sphinx wailed. “Cheater!”
With Annabeth no longer in sight, the Sphinx turned on me. I raised my sword, but before I could strike, Tyson ripped the monster’s grading machine out of the floor and threw it at the Sphinx’s head, ruining her hair bun. It landed in pieces all around her.
“My grading machine!” she cried. “I can’t be exemplary without my test scores!”
The bars lifted from the exits. We all dashed for the far tunnel. I could only hope Annabeth was doing the same.
The Sphinx started to follow, but Grover raised his reed pipes and began to play. Suddenly the pencils remembered they used to be parts of trees. They collected around the Sphinx’s paws, grew roots and branches, and began wrapping around the monster’s legs. The Sphinx ripped through them, but it brought us just enough time.
Tyson pulled Grover into the tunnel, and the bars slammed shut behind us.
“Annabeth!” I yelled.
“Here!” she said, right next to me. “Keep moving!”
We ran through the dark tunnels, listening to the roar of the Sphinx behind us as she complained about all the tests she would have to grade by hand.
I SET MYSELF ON FIRE
I thought we’d lost the spider until Tyson heard a faint pinging sound. We made a few turns, backtracked a few times, and eventually found the spider banging its tiny head on a metal door.
The door looked like one of those old-fashioned submarine hatches—oval, with metal rivets around the edges and a wheel for a doorknob. Where the portal should’ve been was a big brass plaque, green with age, with a Greek Ȇta inscribed in the middle.
We all looked at each other.
“Ready to meet Hephaestus?” Grover said nervously.
“No,” I admitted.
“Yes!” Tyson said gleefully, and he turned the wheel.
As soon as the door opened, the spider scuttled inside with Tyson right behind it. The rest of us followed, not quite as anxious.
The room was enormous. It looked like a mechanic’s garage, with several hydraulic lifts. Some had cars on them, but others had stranger things: a bronze hippalektryon with its horse head off and a bunch of wires hanging out its rooster tail, a metal lion that seemed to be hooked up to a battery charger, and a Greek war chariot made entirely of flames.
Smaller projects cluttered a dozen worktables. Tools hung along the walls. Each had its own outline on a Peg-Board, but nothing seemed to be in the right place. The hammer was over the screwdriver place. The staple gun was where the hacksaw was supposed to go.
Under the nearest hydraulic lift, which was holding a ’98 Toyota Corolla, a pair of legs stuck out—the lower half of a huge man in grubby gray pants and shoes even bigger than Tyson’s. one leg was in a metal brace.
The spider scuttled straight under the car, and the sounds of banging stopped.
“Well, well,” a deep voice boomed from under the Corolla. “What have we here?”
The mechanic pushed out on a back trolley and sat up. I’d seen Hephaestus once before, briefly on Olympus, so I thought I was prepared, but his appearance made me gulp.
I guess he’d cleaned up when I saw him on Olympus, or used magic to make his form seem a little less hideous. Here in his own workshop, he apparently didn’t care how he looked. He work a jumpsuit smeared with oil and grime. Hephaestus, was embroidered over the chest pocket. His leg creaked and clicked in its metal brace as he stood, and his left shoulder was lower than his right, so he seemed to be leaning even when he was standing up straight. His head was misshapen and bulging. He wore a permanent scowl. His black beard smoked and hissed. Every once in a while a small wildfire would erupt in his whiskers then die out. His hands were the size of catcher’s mitts, but he handled the spider with amazing skill. He disassembled it in two seconds, then put it back together.
“There,” he muttered to himself. “Much better.”
The spider did a happy flip in his palm, shot a metallic web at the ceiling, and went swinging away.
Hephaestus glowered up at us. “I didn’t make you, did I?”
“Uh,” Annabeth said, “no, sir.”
“Good,” the god grumbled. “Shoddy workmanship.”
He studied Annabeth and me. “Half-bloods,” he grunted. “Could be automatons, of course, but probably not.”
“We’ve met, sir,” I told him.
“Have we?” the god asked absently. I got the feeling he didn’t care one way or the other. he was just trying to figure out how my jaw worked, whether it was a hinge or a lever or what. “Well then, if I didn’t smash you to a pulp the first time we met, I suppose I won’t have to do it now.”
He looked at Grover and frowned. “Satyr.” Then he looked at Tyson, and his eyes twinkled. “Well, a Cyclops. Good, good. What are you doing traveling with this lot?”
“Uh…” said Tyson, staring in wonder at the god.
“Yes, well said,” Hephaestus agreed. “So, there’d better be a good reason you’re disturbing me. The suspension on this Corolla is no small matter, you know.”
“Sir,” Annabeth said hesitantly, “we’re looking for Daedalus. We thought—”
“Daedalus?” the god roared. “You want that old scoundrel? You dare to seek him out!”
His beard burst into flames and his black eyes glowed.
“Uh, yes, sir, please,” Annabeth said.
“Humph. You’re wasting your time.” He frowned at something on his worktable and limped over to it. He picked up a lump of springs and metal plates and tinkered with them. In a few seconds he was holding a bronze and silver falcon. It spread its metal wings, blinked its obsidian eyes, and flew around the room.
Tyson laughed and clapped his hands. The bird landed on Tyson’s shoulder and nipped his ear affectionately.
Hephaestus regarded him. The god’s scowl didn’t change, but I thought I saw a kinder twinkle in his eyes. “I sense you have something to tell me, Cyclops.”
Tyson’s smile faded. “Y-yes, lord. We met a Hundred-Handed One.”
Hephaestus nodded, looking unsurprised. “Briares?”
“Yes. He—he was scared. He would not help us.”
“And that bothered you.”
“Yes!” Tyson’s voice wavered. “Briares should be strong! He is older and greater than Cyclopes. But he ran away.”
Hephaestus grunted. “There was a time I admired the Hundred-Handed Ones. Back in the days of the first war. But people, monsters, even gods change, young Cyclops. You can’t trust ’em. Look at my loving mother, Hera. You met her, didn’t you? She’ll smile to your face and talk about how important family is, eh? Didn’t stop her from pitching me off Mount Olympus when she saw my ugly face.”